Blues Top 20 prospects

By Kyle McMahon

The St. Louis Blues continue to climb the ranks in terms of prospect quality. Finishing in last place inthe NHL in 2005-06 clearly had some positive outcomes, as it enabled St. Louis to bolster its pool, led by 19-year-old defenseman Erik Johnson.

The Blues main strengths are in the crease and up the middle, with five goaltenders in the top 20, and several highly-ranked centers. 

1. Erik Johnson, D – Minnesota (NCAA) 9.0 B
Drafted: 1st Overall, 2006

St. Louis’ highest ranked prospect easily holds his spot atop the list. His play has been dominant at the NCAA level throughout 2006-07.

A strong two-way player, Johnson has registered three goals and 16 assists in 32 games for Minnesota, in addition to providing shut-down defense in his own zone. At 6’4, 220 lbs., Johnson is rarely out-muscled by opposing forwards, while his strong skating has enabled him to initiate breakout plays and join the rush. He has maintained consistency, with a plus-11 rating, and 18 penalty minutes, a fairly low total for a big defenseman. He also leads his team in shots on goal.

Thanks in part to his strong play, the Golden Gophers rose to the top spot in the country for a stretch, and are jockeying with Notre Dame for No. 1. They could vie for the national championship at the Frozen Four in early April. Fellow blueliners Alex Goligoski (PIT) and Mike Vannelli (ATL) have teamed with Johnson and provided the youngster with valuable veteran leadership and influence.

Johnson maintained his high level of play while at the World Junior Championship with Team USA. He was one of the top players in the tournament and tied for the scoring lead with 10 points, as the Americans finished third.

Johnson appears to have an open invitation to join the Blues at the end of this season, but unless Minnesota gets upset early on in the playoffs, their season probably wouldn’t be over in time for him to join the Blues. His skill is such that he could make the jump to the pros, but he has made it known that he is enjoying playing for a Minnesota team that he grew up idolizing, so he might wish to remain in college for another season.

2. Marek Schwarz, G – Peoria (AHL) 8.0 B
Drafted: 17th Overall, 2004

Schwarz is quickly beginning to look like the goaltender of the future in St. Louis, and perhaps sooner than later.
The 20-year-old’s development has taken off since he decided to back to North America this season. Schwarz began the season with Peoria in the AHL, and like most goaltenders his age making their North American pro debut, it was reasonable to expect he would spend the year in the minors. But Schwarz’s play was impressive, pretty much right from the start, and warranted a call-up to the NHL by mid-December. He started one game for the Blues, a 3-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, before being returned to Peoria.

His statistics in the AHL are indeed impressive, especially for a rookie. Schwarz started hot, with a 12-5 win-loss record through December. He has cooled off a little since, but still has a .903 save percentage with a 2.75 GAA. He was selected to play in the All-Star game, and only allowed a single goal in his period of action, the fewest of the six goaltenders who participated. Schwarz has not played since early February when he pulled his groin in a game. The injury did not appear to be serious, but as is often the case with goaltenders and groin pulls, his recovery time is uncertain.

Goaltenders usually take several years before they’re ready to step into the NHL, but Schwarz looks to be progressing faster than normal. If he continues to perform at a high level in the minors, it’s not inconceivable that he could find himself in contention for the starting job in St. Louis after another year or two of seasoning in the minors.

3. T.J. Oshie, C – North Dakota (NCAA) 8.0 C
Drafted: 24th Overall, 2005

The top forward in the St. Louis system at the moment, Oshie is in the midst of a solid campaign at North Dakota in the NCAA.

The former first rounder was a little slow out of the gate, but that can be partly attributed to a broken thumb, suffered early in the season, which would slow any sharp-shooter down. Through the first three months of the season Oshie was held to just five goals and 18 points, as the Fighting Sioux struggled, but now that he is healthy his production has begun to rise once again. Not coincidentally, his team has seen their win total rise as well as they climb back into contention for second place in the conference behind Minnesota. Since the middle of January, Oshie has been on fire, racking up 20 points in 11 games, including a four-pointer against Bemidji State, and four points in a weekend series that saw North Dakota record two big wins over Minnesota. He is now scoring at the same point-per-game clip as he did in his excellent 2005-06 freshman season.

Like fellow collegiate Johnson, it is not yet known whether Oshie will return to North Dakota next fall or turn pro. At the moment, the center is probably concentrating more on getting his team into the playoffs than he is about what next year holds.

4. Patrik Berglund, C – Vasteras (Sweden-2) 7.5 B
Drafted: 25th Overall, 2006

The Blues’ other fist rounder from 2006, Berglund, has been making strides in the Swedish Allsvenskan league this season.

Berglund’s club, Vasteras, is sitting in the top quarter of the standings, thanks in large part to his scoring exploits. In 34 games played, Berglund, who is one of the youngest players in the league at just 18 years old, has scored 21 goals and added 26 assists. That gives him a total of 47 points to lead his team, and is also good enough to place in the top five in league scoring. He has been used in all situations for Vasteras, scoring seven of his goals while on the power play, while also killing penalties. He has one short-handed goal as well.  

Berglund played for the host Swedes at the 2007 World Junior Championship where his team finished fourth. In a tournament usually dominated by 19-year-olds, the big center managed a respectable three points.

Berglund is already developing well, maybe even better than expected, but will likely remain in Sweden for at least another season or two before he crosses over to North America. 

5. Carl Soderberg, C – Malmo (Sweden) 7.5 C
Drafted: 49th Overall, 2004

Soderberg, a former second-round pick, was in the midst of a breakout season when an eye injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year.

In 2005-06, Soderberg performed well with Malmo in the Allsvenskan, as his team earned promotion to the Elite League. This year, he was maintaining his scoring pace of 2005-06 against the much stiffer competition of the top tier. Through 31 games, the pivot had buried 12 goals and assisted on 18 others for 30 points, with many offensive opportunities generated by his excellent skating and stickhandling. He was a one of few bright spots on a Malmo team that has lingered in the basement of the league. His plus/minus rating was even, impressive on a last place team.

Unfortunately his season was ended prematurely in mid January when he took a stick to the eye in a game. Soderberg has undergone surgery and faces a rehabilitation period of several months, but is expected to make a full recovery in time for training camp in the fall. Still, an eye injury is always worrisome to the player and team, and the Blues hope his progression will not be stunted by the injury.

Soderberg was originally scheduled to play in North America this season, but decided to return to Sweden during training camp. He is under contract to the Blues already and he’ll most likely be in Peoria for 2007-08.

 
6. David Backes, RW – St. Louis (NHL) 7.0 B
Drafted: 62nd Overall, 2003

Forward Backes, one of the few Blues prospects to spend any significant length of time in the NHL in 2006-07, has shown great promise in his 29 games with the big club, and moved up several spots on the prospect depth chart.

Backes spent the first portion of the season with Peoria, where he dressed for 27 games, scoring nine goals and 11 points, a little disappointing after he scored 10 points in 12 games at the end of 2005-06. But new Blues head coach Andy Murray liked what he saw from the youngster, and called him up to St. Louis in December, shortly after he replaced Mike Kitchen. 

Since joining the Blues, he has chipped in with seven goals and five assists, and his play has really begun to pick up throughout February. He has been playing on a line with another young player, Lee Stempniak, and they seem to be developing some chemistry.

His skating ability is not greatly impressive, but he possesses a nose for the net. Standing 6’3, he is not afraid to get physical out on the ice and create space for himself by grinding it out along the boards.

With St. Louis jettisoning veterans Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk at the trade deadline, Backes should see an increased role and more ice time during the final stretch of the season.

7. Jay Barriball, C – Minnesota (NCAA) 7.0 C
Drafted: 203rd Overall, 2006 (acquired in trade with San Jose)
   
The Blues acquired center Barriball from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for free-agent-to-be Guerin at the trading deadline. This deal gives the Blues another skilled forward to add to their stock.

Barriball was not drafted until the seventh round, but that is more indicative of his small size (5’9, 155 pounds) than it is of his talent level. The pint-sized pivot has been huge on the score sheet as a freshman with Minnesota this season. The Prior Lake, Minnesota native leads the first place Golden Gophers in scoring, having posted 16 goals and 20 assists for 36 points in 35 games played. Barriball began his collegiate career in style, with an eight-game scoring streak that saw him total 12 points. He has continued to rack up the goals and assists throughout the season, and is currently on another hot streak, as he has 10 points in his last six outings.

Barriball is fast on his skates, and possesses a strong sense of his surroundings on the ice. He is known for coming to the rink ready to put in a full effort every game, and is well liked by coaches and teammates.

As Blues have surely been watching Minnesota carefully this season to monitor the progress of Johnson, it is quite likely they knew exactly what they were getting in Barriball. The young center already looks like he will easily surpass the expectations normally given to a late round draft pick, and has the potential to be a top six forward in the NHL one day. 

8. Scott Jackson, D – Seattle (WHL) 7.0 C
Drafted: 37th Overall, 2005

A veteran defenseman playing in the WHL, Jackson is enjoying his best career season of junior hockey.

Now 20 years old, Jackson is putting in solid defense while providing offense from the blue line. His gritty play has helped anchor an experienced Seattle blueline corps. In 60 games, the big rearguard has come through with 23 assists and 27 points, a career high, and second on the team amongst defensemen. He had a big month of December, with 10 points and a plus-12 rating as the Thunderbirds gained 19 out of a possible 28 points. All four of Jackson’s goals have come from playing the point on the power play, and his plus-12 leads Thunderbird rearguards.

Both the team and Jackson slumped in the new year, but have begun to heat up again as the playoffs near. A timely winning streak has Seattle back in position to make a run at second place in their division. An over-ager, Jackson will turn pro next season, likely playing in Peoria.

9.Tomas Kana, LW – Vitkovice (Czech-Extraliga) 7.0 C
Drafted: 31st Overall, 2006

Left winger Kana has played this season in the Czech Republic with Vitkovice, after attempts to bring him to Owen Sound in the OHL were unsuccessful.

Kana has played decently in Europe this season, with nine goals and seven assists through 44 games, surpassing last season’s goal and point totals. He has killed penalties and plays a more rugged game than some might expect, with 54 minutes in penalties. His defensive game has been solid as well; he currently sits at plus-1.

The 19-year-old also put in a solid performance with the Czech squad at the World Juniors. The Czechs didn’t perform as well as some expected, but Kana came through with two goals and three assists in six games played.

By mid-January there were reports coming out of Owen Sound that indicated the team and Kana were close to reaching an agreement to bring the young winger over for the remainder of the OHL season. But Vitkovice was, and still is in a tight battle to make the playoffs, and were understandably reluctant to lose one of their top forwards, so Kana will be staying put in Europe for the rest of the year.

10. Ben Bishop, G – Maine (NCAA) 7.0 C
Drafted: 85th Overall, 2005

Sophomore goaltender Bishop is enjoying another very good season in Hockey East with the University of Maine Black Bears.

The big netminder has carried the load all season, with over 1700 minutes played. He has posted an impressive 19-8-2 record, with a 2.15 GAA and .921 save percentage. Bishop has also recorded a pair of shutouts. He ranks in the top 20 in the country in all five of the above statistics, while 19 wins have him in the top three in his conference. The goaltender also played his way onto the tournament all-star team at the Florida College Classic in December.

Bishop has put together several winning streaks this season, including seven in a row to start the season. He would like one more stretch of wins as the Black Bears head into the final few games of the season in search of points to solidify their playoff position. Maine is currently in a tight race with Massachusetts, Vermont, and Boston College.

Bishop is expected to return to school in the fall. His talent level is such that he would probably be capable of playing in the AHL, but with the Blues well-stocked at the goaltender position, it might be hard to get ice time.

11. Michal Birner, LW – Peoria (AHL) 7.0 C
Drafted: 116th Overall, 2004

Peoria left winger Birner is quietly enjoying a solid rookie season in the AHL. The Czech native started the year off a little slow, with only seven points to his credit through December. He missed all of November with an injury, but now that he is healthy and gaining more pro experience, he has begun to contribute to the Rivermen line-up.

Birner achieved his first career two-goal game on Feb. 10 against Houston. He scored twice in the third period: once to tie the game, and then again to win it with just over a minute remaining. He put together a three-game point streak shortly after, and is building confidence and improving his game. Speed and skill is what enables him to generate offense, and he has started to get time coach Dave Bassegio’s power play.

Now with seven goals and 11 assists in 40 games, and beginning to hit his stride, Birner could end up with around 30 points, not a bad debut considering the injury setback. There’s always the chance that he could get called up to St. Louis late in the season for a few NHL games if the Blues remain out of the playoffs and want to take a look at some of their minor league talent.    

12. Roman Polak, D – Peoria (AHL) 6.5 B
Drafted: 180th Overall, 2004

Defenseman Polak makes his first appearance on the Top 20 list after a surprising training camp followed up with solid play.

With little fanfare surrounding him, it wasn’t expected that a late-round pick like Polak would be making an impact so early, if at all. But the Czech came back over to North America in the fall (he had played junior with Kootenay in the WHL previously) and made the Blues’ NHL roster right out of camp. He stuck around for six games, averaging about 10 minutes a night before being sent down to Peoria, where he has played since.

A defensive-minded blueliner, Polak has provided tough opposition to incoming forwards. He has been physical along the boards, and is difficult to get around. His plus-2 rating leads Peoria defensemen, and he has also chipped in offensively, with four goals and 11 points, as well as 52 PIM. Most of those points came during a hot streak in December.

A recall to St. Louis could be in order before the end of the season, though the Rivermen, who are in a tight race for a playoff spot, probably hope one of their top defenders sticks around.      

13. Nikolai Lemtyugov, RW – Severstal Cherepovets (Russia) 7.0 C
Drafted: 219th Overall, 2005

St. Louis’ highest-ranked Russian prospect is Lemtyugov, a 21-year-old playing in the Russian Super League.

Playing with Severstal, Lemtyugov has scored 10 goals and added six assists in 44 games played. Ten tallies already matches his goal total from last year. His numbers may not look too impressive, but the Russian league is notoriously low scoring, so they’re not too shabby for a player his age.

Lemtyugov is not overly physical, but isn’t deterred by contact, and has spent 40 minutes in the penalty box so far, and has a plus-5 rating.

The Blues hope they will have better luck in getting Lemtyugov over to North America than they’ve had with some of their other Russian prospects. He could play in the minors next year if management can get him over.    

14. Jason Bacashihua, G – Peoria (AHL) 6.0 C
Drafted: 26th Overall, 2001 (acquired in trade with Dallas)

Goaltender Bacashihua has been moving between St. Louis in the NHL and Peoria in the AHL throughout the 2006-07 season.  After some strong play with the Blues at the end of 2005-06, this season looked like it would be the one where the former first-round pick took the next step, but he has had his struggles at both the NHL and minor league level.

With Peoria, his usage has been sporadic. He has started 14 games, and currently sports a 3.28 GAA and .873 save percentage. Both stats rank well below Schwarz and Beckford-Tseu, Peoria’s other regular goaltenders. But things have begun to turn around in the last month. “Cash”, as he’s known, has finally been down long enough to string together consecutive starts, and has recorded two wins and two losses, with a 2.44 GAA, a sign that things are turning around.

While with St. Louis, he has appeared in eight games, some of them relief appearances. He has a 0-3-1 record with a 3.61 GAA and .893 save percentage. Though he hasn’t recorded any wins, he has had a couple of strong performances with 40 or so saves.

Bacashihua has recently been brought back up to St. Louis. He will need strong performances if he’s to figure in the Blues plans for next year. With other netminders coming up behind him, he needed to play better than he has so far to maintain his standing within the organization, but there’s still over a month to turn things around and salvage the season.

15. Charles Linglet, LW – Peoria (AHL) 7.0 D
Drafted: N/A (signed as free agent)

Linglet has been in the Blues’ minor-league system for three years, but was only recently signed to an NHL contract.

At 24 years old, Linglet, who was never drafted, has exploded onto the scene this year. He had 21 points in half a season with Peoria in 2005-06, and has continued to improve this season. In 50 games, he leads the Rivermen with 26 goals, and ranks third on the team with 40 points. After a big month of December, in which Linglet bagged nine goals, the Blues elected to offer him an NHL deal. With only 24 penalty minutes, Linglet is no enforcer; rather he relies on his soft hands and creativity with the puck to provide his teams with scoring punch.

Like many Blues prospects, the Montreal native has a chance of being called up as the season gets into its later stages and the Blues will be more apt to see what their youngsters can do at the next level.

16. Konstantin Barulin, G – Khimik Mytyshi (Russia) 7.0 D
Drafted: 84th Overall, 2003

Russian goaltender Barulin is enjoying an excellent campaign with Khimik Mytyshi.  He has played in 17 games with the club, and his numbers are exceptionally good. He leads the league in both GAA at 1.45, and save percentage at .945. He has also posted one shutout. His strong play got him noticed by the coach of the Russian national team that was sent to the Sweden Games and Euro Tour. He played in three games between the two events, winning two of them. His numbers were not as spectacular at those tournaments as they were in league play, but he gained valuable experience nonetheless. The coach even hinted at the possibility of Barulin appearing in more prestigious competitions with the national team in the future.

The Blues have plenty of prospects playing between the pipes, but Barulin should at least receive a contract offer so that his rights are kept. He may continue to play in Russia, but does have the skill to have a shot at the NHL one day.

17. Timofei Shishkanov, LW – Chekhov Vityaz (Russia) 7.0 D
Drafted: 33rd Overall, 2001 (acquired in trade with Nashville)

Once a highly-rated prospect, Shishkanov’s stock continues to fall as he elects to remain in Russia.  Despite his supreme offensive talent and skill, Shishkanov, whom the Blues received in exchange for Mike Sillinger, doesn’t seem to have the commitment or work ethic necessary for an NHL career. His play in Russia this year has been mediocre, with only seven goals and five assists in 32 games played. He has 61 PIM and a minus-8 rating.

Back in the summer it was believed that Shishkanov would be in Blues training camp, and given an opportunity to make the NHL squad, or at very least be a top-line player in Peoria. But he elected to sign with Checkhov for the year, and it is quite possible St. Louis has seen the last of him. Shishkanov’s age (he’ll be 24 in the summer) and the uprising of several other prospects in their system have made him less of a priority. 

18. Jonas Junland, D – Linkoping (Sweden) 6.5 C
Drafted: 64th Overall, 2006

The Swedish Elite League is where defenseman Junland, the Blues’ fourth selection from the 2006 entry draft, has plied his trade this season.

Junland has played 37 games with Linkoping so far, notching one goal and four assists. He plays a two-way game, and possesses a booming shot from the point, so as he matures and gets more ice time the offense should come more frequently.

The 6’2 blueliner was a fixture on Team Sweden’s defense corps during the recent World Juniors. Junland was effective in his own end as well as on the offensive. He finished with an impressive plus-5 rating while scoring a goal and an assist as Sweden finished in fourth place.

Junland has also played with the Linkoping junior team and second division club Oskarshamn this year. As his ice time in the SEL has been limited at times, he was sent to these teams briefly to stay in top form before the World Juniors. With Oskarshamn, he recorded three assists in four games. He was dominant on the junior squad, with 13 points in only nine games played.

Junland will not turn 20 until November and does not need to be signed until 2008, so he will probably remain in Sweden for another season.

19. Chris Beckford-Tseu, G – Peoria (AHL) 6.0 C
Drafted: 159th Overall, 2003

Twenty-two-year-old Beckford-Tseu is the last of the goaltenders on St. Louis’ Top 20 list.  He has spent the majority of the year in Peoria, with an 8-4-2 record and he leads them in both save percentage (.908), and GAA (2.34). The netiminder has been consistently solid in the crease all season, and is currently on a 6-1-1 streak that begun with a shutout of the Omaha Knights. Ideally, Beckford-Tseu would have seen more game action this year, but such is the nature of the Blues’ goaltending situation.

The young goalie has also spent some time with the Alaska Aces in the ECHL to stay sharp during stretches of inactivity. He dominated at the ECHL level last season, winning the league championship, and nothing has changed this year. He is a perfect 7-0, and has allowed just nine goals against, giving him a miniscule 1.27 GAA and a ridiculous .950 save percentage.

Beckford-Tseu has clearly developed as much as he can at the ECHL level, and seems good enough that he could hold down a starter’s job in the AHL. The Blues brass will have some decisions to make with their goaltenders in the off-season to clear some space and not hinder the progress of players like Beckford-Tseu. 

20. Juhamatti Aaltonen, LW – Karpat Oulu (Finland) 7.0 D
Drafted: 284th Overall, 2003

St. Louis’ only Finnish prospect, left winger Aaltonen, is playing in SM Liiga, Finland’s highest national league. Aaltonen is a dynamic offensive player, possessing an array of stickhandling moves, with a sniper’s shot. He has scored 11 goals and 19 assists to give him 30 points in 49 games this season with Karpat. Aaltonen has also been a regular on the power-play unit. He has struggled a little with defense, something that is known to be a weakness in his game, with a minus-1 rating, the lowest amongst Karpat’s top scorers. However, he is starting to become a little more physical and gritty, which will make him a more complete player.

The Blues will probably try to get Aaltonen over to North America to play with Peoria next season. His play in Finland has been good enough that he deserves a shot, and could end up being a steal of a ninth round pick.

Missing The Cut

Defenseman Jeff Woywitka has performed decently in the AHL this season, with 18 points in 41 games, but has not shown a great deal in 14 games with St. Louis. This was expected to be a make or break season for Woywitka, and he has not lived up to past projections that saw him as a top-four blueliner. The Blues traded away Dennis Wideman at the deadline, so Woywitka should be given one more opportunity to showcase himself in the final weeks of the season.

Russian right winger Alexei Shkotov also falls out of the top 20 this time around. He is a talented player, but it looks like he is content to play in Russia and likely won’t have an NHL career.

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